Friday, June 25, 2010

Lessons from Atticus

In this year, on July 11, 2010, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is 50 years old. Many people, including me, have been inspired by the wisdom of Atticus Finch and the portraits of courage found throughout the story.

When Jem witnesses the destructive nature of racism and intolerance, Atticus tries to console him, saying, "There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible."

Indeed, it is not, but sometimes we can place Beauty before us, and its brilliance overshadows the ugliness. That is what I hope to do with this blog: cast ugliness into the shadows and bring forth the beauty within the human heart and mind, even in the ugliest places and under the worst conditions.

Such a place was Japan in 1945. For six months, the United States waged an incendiary assault upon Japanese cities, using B-29s flown at such a great height that the plane and all on board were safe from harm, but below, Japan and its citizens were far from safe. Those planes released fire bombs, killing hundreds of thousands—more than the Atomic bombs killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The initial fire bomb targets were industrial areas, but wind and the whims of nature soon carried the fire to residential areas, destroying homes, lives, and entire cities.

Still, many years after this devastating attack, even after Japan surrendered and re-built its nation, I heard one Japanese woman give thanks to America. Here’s how I learned her story.

In 2001, the nation of Japan selected me for a Fulbright exchange experience whereby American teachers receive a grant that will support them as they travel to Japan to study for three weeks. In exchange, we bring our newly acquired, first-hand knowledge of Japan to our home school districts in the United States.

U. S. teachers spend one of the three weeks in Japan in a prefect where a local family entertains them one weekend. For the rest of the week, they tour schools from elementary to university. My prefect was Okazaki where one afternoon, after the junior high students had gone home, teachers from two cultures met in a large conference room. Still a very paternalistic culture, the men took the chairs in the first rows while the women assigned themselves to the back. The men, of course, initiated the conversation and directed the flow of our discussion. They were particularly alarmed to learn that U. S. school cafeterias do not serve fish frequently. They seemed to grieve when we told them that American kids eat hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and potatoes most every day.

After the discussion faded, one middle-aged woman at the back asked to read a letter to the Americans. The men cast down their eyes and seemed embarrassed or annoyed. Still she was granted permission to speak.

The composition that she read thanked us, the Americans present, for her life. She recounted the story her parents had passed on to her. They told her that they held her, a starving baby near death, because there was nothing to sustain her after the fire bombings. An American GI, passing by, saw the family’s need and gave her parents powdered milk. That GI gave her life a second time, she said, and her family has been forever grateful to Americans. This woman wished to thank Americans for the years she had enjoyed since 1945.

I was struck by her humility and sincerity. How I wished that someone in the room deserved the honor she was bestowing upon all Americans. After all, neither I nor anyone else at the table had served in the Armed Forces during World War II. I was not even born until well after the war ended, but I understood that the anonymous GI, perhaps doing his duty, perhaps exceeding his duty, had accomplished more than any bomb, pamphlet, or political strategy. He had changed the hearts and minds of a former enemy. He had reached across ash and sorrow to embrace life.

If I could find this particular soldier and ask him, I doubt that he would tell me that yes, this moment was his finest hour. In fact, he might not even recall the moment because it was probably brief and done in passing. Surely, he would remember the birth of his own children and countless other moments as more courageous and memorable. Still, he made a difference so great that any one of us would hold him up as a model for the rest of us.

And that, readers, is the purpose of this blog: to find the ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things without any thought to a medal, certificate, or award—without any thought to recognition. These men and women act selflessly, generously, and beautifully. They cast out ugliness by rising above pettiness, jealousy and cruelty.